The Army Chaplains’ Department has existed since 1796. Recruiting from the ranks of Anglican clergymen to begin with, the department broadened its scope in the years before the outbreak of the First World War, covering Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Methodist and Jewish congregrations. Around 4,400 chaplains served with British armed forces from 1914 to 1918. 179 of them never came home again.
Chaplains took on various duties while serving at the Western Front, but the common thread which unites them was the welfare of the men they served with. The 3rd Dragoon Guards mention cinematograph entertainments organised by their chaplain, while the 1st East Lancashire Regiment comment on the bravery of theirs, who dressed the wounds of injured men. Chaplains were unique amongst the troops in that they were unarmed, although they did get involved from time to time in military preparations. The 1st King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment, for example, records the case of Revered Captain Burrell, who built models of the German lines prior to an anticipated attack. Unarmed or not, Chaplains were often to be found in the thick of the fighting, comforting the wounded, helping stretcher bearers, doing what they could for the men under their care. The 1st East Surrey Regiment diary mentions the Reverend E.J. Sandford, awarded the Military Cross for gallantry.
Two chaplains on the Western Front went so far in their devotion to the men they served with, that they were awarded the Victoria Cross. The first, Theodore Hardy, had been turned down for service as a chaplain at the beginning of the war due to his age – he was 51 in 1914. He persevered, and eventually joined British forces in France in 1916. He was attached to the 8th Lincolnshire Regiment, with whom he won The Distinguished Service Order, the Military Cross and, finally, the VC. His citation for the latter reads:
For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty on many occasions. Although over fifty years of age, he has, by his fearlessness, devotion to men of his battalion, and quiet, unobtrusive manner, won the respect and admiration of the whole division. His marvellous energy and endurance would be remarkable even in a very much younger man, and his valour and devotion are exemplified in the following incidents: —
An infantry patrol had gone out to attack a previously located enemy post in the ruins of a village, the Reverend Theodore Bayley Hardy (C.F.) being then at company headquarters. Hearing firing, he followed the patrol, and about four hundred yards beyond our front line of posts found an officer of the patrol dangerously wounded. He remained with the officer until he was able to get assistance to bring him in. During this time there was a great deal of firing, and an enemy patrol actually penetrated between the spot at which the officer was lying and our front line and captured three of our men.
On a second occasion, when an enemy shell exploded in the middle of one of our posts, the Reverend T. B. Hardy at once made his way to the spot, despite the shell and trench mortar fire which was going on at the time, and set to work to extricate the buried men. He succeeded in getting out one man who had been completely buried. He then set to work to extricate a second man, who was found to be dead.
During the whole of the time that he was digging out the men this chaplain was in great danger, not only from shell fire, but also because of the dangerous condition of the wall of the building which had been hit by the shell which buried the men.
On a third occasion he displayed the greatest devotion to duty when our infantry, after a successful attack, were gradually forced back to their starting trench.
After it was believed that all our men had withdrawn from the wood, Chaplain Hardy came out of it, and on reaching an advanced post asked the men to help him to get in a wounded man. Accompanied by a serjeant, he made his way to the spot where the man lay, within ten yards of a pill-box which had been captured in the morning, but was subsequently recaptured and occupied by the enemy. The wounded man was too weak to stand, but between them the chaplain and the serjeant eventually succeeded in getting him to our lines.
Throughout the day the enemy’s artillery, machine-gun, and trench mortar fire was continuous, and caused many casualties.
Notwithstanding, this very gallant chaplain was seen moving quietly amongst the men and tending the wounded, absolutely regardless of his personal safety.
He was one of the 179 chaplains killed in action, dying of wounds only weeks before the end of the war, after once again going out to rescue wounded men under fire.
The second chaplain to win the VC on the Western Front was Edward Noel Mellish, who served with the 4th Royal Fusiliers. His citation reads:
On three consecutive days, the 27 to 29 March 1916, during the heavy fighting at St. Eloi, Belgium, he went to-and fro continuously between the original trenches and the captured enemy trenches, attending to and rescuing wounded men. The first day, from an area swept by machine-gun fire, he rescued 10 severely wounded men. Although his battalion was relieved on the second day, he returned and rescued 12 more of the wounded. Taking charge of a group of volunteers, on the third day, he again returned to the trenches in order to rescue the remaining wounded. This excellent work was done voluntarily and was far outside the sphere of his normal duties
The story goes that one of the wounded men he brought back in was a hardbitten cockney, with deeply anti-religious views. When he made it back to hospital, the soldier asked what religion Reverend Mellish belonged to, declaring that:
I’m the same as ‘im now and the bloke as sez a word agen our church will ‘have ‘is ****** ‘ead bashed in.
The chaplains served a vital humanitarian role on the Western Front. Why not join us at Operation War Diary and help uncover the history of all the other troops they worked amongst?
The war diaries are full of tantalising hints about the enemy British and Indian troops were facing. There are mentions of different uniforms, equipment and regiments, but like the men themselves, we rarely get a full picture of troops on the other side of no-man’s land.
The truth is that the Imperial German Army of the First World War was not so much one unit, as several working in extremely close cooperation. Based on the kingdoms of Germany prior to unification, they were dominated by the Prussians, who absorbed many of the pre-unification armies into their ranks. Troops from Bavaria, Saxony, Baden and Württemberg, however, remained semi-autonomous, and had identities quite distinct from the Prussian army. All had their own War Ministry, for example.
The Prussians were the largest contingent in the German forces. Their doctrine was based on mobile, encircling manoeuvres, which although impossible to achieve on the Western Front, led to great success against the Russians in the east.
Bavaria did standardise itself to some degree with the Prussians – they adopted field grey uniforms to replace their traditional light-blue, but still distinguished themselves with cockades and blue and white edging on their collars. During the early battles of the war, they fought as a united army under the command of Crown Prince Rupprecht, but as the war progressed and casualties mounted, they increasingly found themselves mixed in with troops of the other army corps. They began the war with a little over 87,000 men. Over the four years which followed, 200,000 were killed.
Saxony mobilised almost three quarters of a million soldiers during the First World War. Almost 230,000 never made it home. The troops were formed into two regular army corps and one reserve corps and fought mostly on the Western Front.
The army of Württemberg was the smallest of the old independent kingdoms. Comprising a single army corps in the Imperial German Army, it nonetheless saw extensive action on both the Western and Eastern Fronts. During the war, a Württemberg mountain battalion was formed, for service on the Romanian and Italian fronts. It was in this battalion that the young Erwin Rommel made a name for himself, winning the Blue Max (Pour le Mérite), Prussia’s highest gallantry award.
There’s much more fascinating information contained in the pages of the war diaries, including mention of the different ranks used by the various German units and the British and Indian troops’ impressions of the men who faced them.
Why not join us at Operation War Diary and see what insights into the German army you can uncover?